When the first Afghan soldiers arrived at the mouth of the Tangi Valley last week, they saw a Taliban flag waving over a towering bluff. They had entered a sliver of their own country that did not belong to them, beginning one of the most daunting missions in the short history of the Afghan army.
They climbed to the rocky peak and plucked the enemy’s flag from the ground. That’s when the first makeshift bomb exploded, a booby trap that blew the men off their feet and threw a plume of dust and smoke and fire into the air.
It was an early confirmation of what Afghan and U.S. troops already knew: The Tangi is not just another insurgent haven. According to many intelligence estimates, it is the most dangerous vein in the country’s eastern hinterlands, home to Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. It is the site of the deadliest attack endured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and one of the biggest staging grounds for assaults on Kabul, just 60 miles away.
But what was the Afghan army doing there? Its last base in the Tangi had been abandoned and overrun by insurgents. The American military had given up on securing the valley two years earlier. Neither American nor Afghan military leaders thought Afghan security forces had the capacity to set up permanent positions there, deeming the Taliban’s sanctuary all but unshakable, regardless of the operation’s outcome.
In over a decade of war, the United States failed to destroy a patchwork of Taliban havens, leaving an untested Afghan army to either let those sanctuaries fester or make bold — but perhaps inconsequential — efforts to disturb them. As the Afghan military attempts to prove its own strength without American combat support, the Tangi appeared to be the perfect mission — a chance to do what the U.S. military could not.
For the 1,027 Afghan soldiers who entered the Tangi in early April, the threats would be unrelenting. By the time they left after four long days, more than 40 makeshift bombs had detonated. The valley was peppered with Taliban madrassas, they would learn, and homes from which fighters emerged firing machine guns and rockets. Clinics once funded by Western aid agencies had been emblazoned with Taliban slogans. Former U.S. bases had been rigged with land mines.
“Terrorists own the Tangi,” said Col. Sami Badakshani, the executive officer of the Afghan army’s 4th Brigade. “The American military left. The Afghan government left. Because of that negligence, it is like this.”
American troops were surprised to learn of the Afghan army’s plans just one day before the operation was due to start. They rushed to get air support and surveillance drones into the area, sending about a dozen advisers to an outpost overlooking the valley. But no U.S. soldiers would enter the Tangi. (A Washington Post reporter and photographer were the only Americans there.) The days of large-scale joint combat operations are over in Afghanistan, particularly in places where the U.S. military questions the long-term value of dangerous missions.
This time, the Afghan army, fledgling but ambitious, would be on its own — the first non-Taliban combatants to enter the valley in over two years.
The soldiers regrouped after the first explosion, which left them with only minor injuries. They were chastised by one of their battalion commanders. The men should have known better, said Col. Mohammed Daowood. The Taliban often attach makeshift bombs to flags, in case the enemy should attempt to remove them.
“These guys — what are they doing?” Daowood said. “We cannot lose this battle before it starts.”
The troops continued pouring into the narrow valley, with some walking along the ridgeline and others taking the main road — a key throughway between Wardak and Logar provinces, paved by Americans but untraversed because of the Taliban’s dominance. In 2009, the U.S. military dubbed it “IED alley.” In 2011, the Taliban shot down an American Chinook in the Tangi, killing 38 people, including 22 Navy SEALs, in the deadliest attack of the war.
Immediately, the first units began digging for explosive devices. The troops had none of the U.S. military’s sophisticated equipment. Their jammers, which disable remote-controlled bombs, were mostly broken. The men used their eyes and pickaxes and shovels, uncovering massive homemade mines every 15 feet and lifting them from the ground with bare hands.
One by one, they carried the mines away from the road and buried them in the ground before detonating them, shattering the windows of Tangi homes. Any of the explosive devices would have torn through the soft-skin Ford Rangers with which the Afghan army is outfitted.